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Jere Brittain: ‘Hold that Tiger’ … accountable to the public

Jere Brittain Jere Brittain

As the footnote of my column identifies me with Clemson University, and two Tigers are stalking the national football championship, I feel obliged to offer a few observations.

If a copy of this edition of the Hendersonville Lightning should find its way to Sikes Hall, my title of Professor Emeritus may be at risk.

On behalf of my English professors at old Clemson College in the late 1950’s, I must mention that neither Frank Howard, nor Danny Ford, nor Dabo Swinney received a degree in football from Clemson. The quaintness of their post-game interviews derives from their English and public speaking training at Alabama.

The worst-kept secret in college sports is that big-time football programs have evolved to a professional level (albeit with unpaid gladiators), dominating the affairs of their host campuses and operating beyond the control of University executives and Trustees. In many instances, Trustees, themselves wealthy and avid fans, are complicit, supporting winning programs over academics. I personally knew two good Clemson presidents who were fired or permitted to resign, as a result of their efforts to shift the University vision toward academic and research excellence.

Dabo’s latest contract extension was for a reported salary of $9.3 million per year through 2028. For perspective, Clemson President James Clements makes about $800,000 per year, while the average salary of professors is around $100, 000. The median household income in South Carolina is about $50,000 per year, approximately $10,000 less than the national median.

In the Dec. 27, 2016, edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston Post and Courier, Gene Saporoff reported a Q&A interview with Clement, who was hired from West Virginia University in 2013, based somewhat upon his well-known affection for big-time football.

Q. Dabo Swinney is quite an unusual personality. What’s it like to have him as the face of Clemson?
A. …He’s a great face and representative for this institution….

Q. Are football coach salaries out of control?
A. Dabo’s well paid; Dabo works hard. Our athletics is totally self-supported — donations, sponsorships and ticket sales. I want the best person for every position at our institution. …

Q. Clemson is about to open (and now has opened) a $55 million football building complete with a two-story water slide, a miniature golf course, and perks that seem to a lot of people at odds with other things on campus.
A. What Coach Swinney wants is an environment where his team will bond and spend life together in a safe environment. Again, it’s private money.

The private money argument defies logic. Clemson is a public university. If Dabo is “the face of Clemson,” the football program must be an entity of Clemson.

A documentary titled, “Corridor of Shame” describes the neglect of South Carolina’s rural schools in counties along I-95. In 2017, the South Carolina Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, “settled” a 24-year-old lawsuit brought by counties along the corridor, demanding better state funding for neglected public schools. The ruling provided oversight by the court to see that the state delivered “minimally adequate” funding to the poor counties. Gov. McMasters has opposed the court takeover.

Seanna Adcox reported in the May 5, 2017, Post and Courier that political wrangling continued. Reform advocates stated that piecemeal approaches had failed and that a complete overhaul was needed. The issue has been punted downfield to 2020.

What has this to do with big time football coaches’ salaries? If Dabo’s salary were capped, say, at a meager one million dollars per year, the other eight million would not find its way to school systems in the Corridor of Shame, would it? I think the issue is that such obscene expenditures for football creates an illusion that all is well in the Palmetto State so long as Clemson and USC programs are bringing home national titles, while burning issues in the Corridor go unattended.

Perhaps Dabo could become part of the solution by loading his warriors on a convoy of buses during spring semester and distributing them throughout Corridor schools as mentors and role models for neglected children. I’m serious. He could fix this. He’s an amazing and proven winner. A statue of Dabo triumphantly riding a stud horse would replace the confederate memorial in Columbia.

Why do I care? My grandson, Wilson, recently asked me whether or not Clemson has a good pre-med program. I assured him they do, with close connections with MUSC. The challenge of keeping sports in perspective notwithstanding, Clemson remains what it has always been. A great place to go to college. My sister, JoAn Shearin, a long-time resident of Tiger Town, took Wilson and his family on a guided recruiting tour. Next time he got a scratch he bled orange.

My game prediction? Clemson over those other Tigers. Who would bet against a coach who gives God the Glory in every post-game interview?

Journeying on …

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A sixth generation native of Mills River, Hendersonville Lightning columnist Jere Brittain is a retired professor of horticulture at Clemson University, a musician and songwriter and Henderson County history enthusiast. He writes about life in and around Mills River.